Alibi V.29 No.35 • Aug 27-Sept 2, 2020 

Outdoors

Walking Through the Pandemic

150 miles across Albuquerque in the time of Corona

Fireball 5, Mile 8

The unofficial map of the unofficial Albuquerque Trail.
The unofficial map of the unofficial Albuquerque Trail.
The high mesa stretch of Arizona Trail from the Utah border south to the rim of the Grand Canyon, an in-and-out hike of about 150 miles—that was the trip my partner and I had planned to celebrate our 25th anniversary, giving us weeks alone together backpacking in a beautiful place. As we prepared for the trip, however, the issuance of COVID-19 orders began: Stay at home, restrict all travel. Then came the closure of the AZT and Grand Canyon National Park.

Rhinestone Graveyard, Mile 15

In the optimistic spirit of early 2020—remember optimism?—we continued planning in the hope the orders and closures would be short-lived. Before-times preparation for an off-grid trip like this involved stocking up on instant meals, comparing foods for the ideal ratio of calories and weight. But we were now doing this right when real or imagined food shortages loomed and panic buying had taken hold. We discovered marvels like "dried butter" just to find them suddenly sold out, already gone into someone's garage not to be heard from until the estate sale. Freeze-dried scrambled eggs were out of the question. We counted ourselves lucky to get six bags of the apparently unloved Coconut Beef Curry. It was a major victory to score 3 pounds—the only size still available—of dried cheese powder from someplace in Ohio.

Finally we had everything we would need, and we were ready to go. But of course, the closures continued and then expanded. It had become a guilty pleasure to just walk through our own neighborhood.

Slumber Party at the Lizard Castle, Mile 27

So we decided to blaze our own trail, and do those 150 miles walking across Albuquerque. We just moved here a couple years ago and there were still parts of the city we hadn't really explored. Parts of the map still uncharted, with imagined sea monsters sketched in those incognitas instead of knowledge. We would do this, it was decided, in small bits, early before the sun got much above the Sandias and my partner had to be home for her first Zoom meeting of the day. In the spirit of the Arizona Trail, which has names for the various segments of the trail, we gave our Albuquerque Trail a name for each day's passage, based on the most interesting or weirdest thing we saw: a huge stack of couches in a backyard, discarded popcorn balls outside a big house covered in gecko artwork, a sapling amid small rocks painted with messages like "We miss you Louis!" or a jacuzzi abandoned in the creosote. We started in the northeast, zigzagged east-west, and moved gradually southward. We mostly traveled major roads like Montgomery, Comanche, and Lomas, and used Tramway and Unser to move south. The trail descended to cross the Rio Grande, traversed I-25, and rose to meet the foothills many times.

Couch Mountain, Mile 65

Usually I spend a lot of time hiking in open spaces and natural areas. One of the pleasures is tracking the seasons and the subtleties of a changing landscape, like the ripening of tunas or unfurling of the swirls that presage fruits on mountain mahogany bushes. There are seasonal visitors too—nighthawks, tarantulas and the next generation of cotton-tails. But when you're on a concrete sidewalk following an asphalt road, walking next to cinderblock and chain-link, there's not a lot to look at. Yards offer a reprieve from urban monotony and opportunities for critique: overdue weeding, exuberant yard art, ill-constructed additions. After a few dozen miles, though, I began to realize the city has surprises and seasons too.

Having lived in the desert most of my life, I've learned to venture outside on the margins of the day, and often encounter remnants of the night's activity. A pile of blue jay feathers, moist scat in the center of the trail, or even just the last of the cool evening air gathered in arroyos. Once in the Sandias it was a freshly gnawed deer hoof (just the hoof was left). In the city this took the form of a collection of empty Fireball 5 bottles, a lost shoe or hastily erected barriers to corral protesters. In the wilderness you avoid rattlers and prickly pear; in the city it's discarded needles and broken glass.

Six-Donut Ofrenda, Mile 73

We happened upon many small mysteries that begged a backstory: a hamster-sized grave in a park with a bejeweled popsicle-stick tombstone, a careful curbside arrangement of six chocolate mini-donuts and two bottles of Yakult, a precarious Jenga-like pile of couches towering next to a house, or (my favorite) names scratched in fresh concrete: "Duane + Joy" and then, 3 feet farther down the sidewalk, "Bob + Joy."

The Twins Are Due This Summer, Mile 90

We kept walking, toward the mountains, the river, or the volcanoes. Early on we found ourselves walking by a large building complex where police cars blocked the entry. The name seemed vaguely familiar. Finally we realized the route had taken us past a retirement home with one of Albuquerque's first and worst outbreaks. As the pandemic continued, pharmaceutical-grade masks joined the usual urban detritus, Amazon boxes overflowed recycling bins. We passed closed schools and closed businesses. Signs saying, "Closed Due to COVID," "Classes Cancelled," "Nurses Are Heroes!" and one in marker on cardboard thanking delivery drivers for bringing so many packages for an expectant parent. Then came windows painted to say, "Open for take-out!" and "Teachers Are Heroes." After that the boarded-up windows ready for night-time protests. Later the “Going Out of Business” signs and the increasingly common “For Rent” placards. On sidewalks across the city, children seemed less worried than the rest of us, proclaiming, "We got this!" in smudgy pastel letters with rainbows.

Suburban Homesick Blues, Mile 104

On this walk I got to know the different areas of the city, the posh terraced homes perched in the east foothills, the busy, dense neighborhoods of the center, the farmy spreads peppered with livestock near the river and the vast walled-off housing developments fringing the city on the west. I became a backseat urban planner, mentally reworking neighborhoods I walked through and renaming subdivisions and streets, mostly those that I guess were some developer's attempt at lyricism or local color: Crimson Glory, Copper Wind or Cornmaiden Lane.

Have You Seen Mango?, Mile 139

Now that we're all so distanced from each other, everyday life has come to resemble the remote and isolated experience I had wanted for a vacation. This new trail brought me, instead of faraway wilderness, through strangers’'s neighborhoods and communities, past their struggles and fears. My walks through Albuquerque felt like a vicarious view into what my fellow Burquenos were up to, shared lives and connections that still hold firm from a distance of six feet.

Xanthe Miller